There has been a recent boom in upscale restaurant versions of burgers and hot dogs, but I wasn't expecting street-cart kebabs to be next. Pera, which opened recently in a bright, marbled hall near Grand Central, is conceived as a fancy Turkish place. But if you walk to it through Midtown, it's hard not to notice that the carts you pass on the corners have the same delicious smell as Pera's open kitchen.
For the considerable difference in price, Pera offers a lot more than its street-cart competition: not just chairs and courteous service, but serious frills like wine and appetizers. A raft of meze starters can be had individually or in a sampling platter ($16) that shows off the varied technique of chefs Sezai Celikbas and Jason Avery. The house hummus ($8) has a fresher chickpea taste than most. It's served warm, and festooned Turkish-style with stiff, savory strips of dried beef. A whipped eggplant dip ($10) has lemon flavor and little else; a smoked version ($10) offers much more garlicky vigor, although the lavash bread that accompanies it (and many of the other dishes) has a lifelessness that's a little too reminiscent of raw flour tortillas.
Though you might not know it from New York's sparse culinary embassies, Turkey is renowned for its seafood, and Pera's renditions, like those synopsized in another appetizer sampler ($14), stand out. Salmon cured in licoricey raki and set among juicy golden raisins and braised fennel has enough punch and complexity to rate maincourse status. Punch isn't everything, though, as illustrated by an elegant, delicate timbale of avocado and tender crab, and juicy raw sea bass in thick paprika-pinkened yogurt. Even salads merit special attention here, since their subtlety shows such contrast to the hard-hitting meats. Pomegranate molasses lends a tart note to one made with faintly bitter young dandelion greens and another of tomatoes, walnuts, and red onions ($10).
The central section of the menu, though, is called "From the Brasier" and includes grilled lamb, grilled chicken, and grilled beef in various configurations. Ground lamb, shaped into elongated spiced patties ($23) laid on lavash, is perhaps the tastiest, with its oniony, cuminy, gently charred aroma. Whole skewered cubes of marinated lamb ($25) or chicken ($22) have an appealing juicy chew, and "hand-ground" beef patties ($21) are mellow and well-seasoned, but all their flavors invite comparison to those street-corner meats on a stick, and don't necessarily trounce that competition. Sure, Pera serves its meat on nice white china plates with all the frills, but really the taste differential should be the impressive part, and it isn't. Some restaurants do a stunning job with plain skewered meats ó the lamb brochette at Tia Pol comes to mind ó but the products of Pera's grill are as good as, and no better than, fine cart fare. Maybe I've just been going to the right carts.
For $42 a person, the "Pera Tradition" is a meat-lover's tasting menu that includes both brochettes, a choice of patty, flatbreads paved with ground lamb, and very tasty little lamb ribs that are tougher than chops but with more flavor. The presentation includes a sampler of salads and dips as well, which break up the relentless carnivory just enough.
Some of the cooking feels overly compromised, watered down for non-Turkish tastes, but a main course of five silvery whole sardines ($24), each wearing a grapeleaf vest and nothing more, lets you forget for a moment the sports game on the television up front and the overwrought design features, and pretend you've stumbled into a quiet inn on the Bosporus. Even with roasted eggplant and tomato on the side, it's too plain and too fishy for its posh surroundings, but it's a quiet pleasure. A roasted monkfish tail ($26) with a section of skin left on in an unusual touch, shows a different side of the kitchen's skill. The rich fish is crisped and then covered with sweet cooked tomato piqued with olive, preserved lemon, and briny, crunchy sea vegetables, with a length or two of octopus limb for garnish.
Only a couple of Turkish wines, blends from Ankara's Kavaklidere winery, make the 150-bottle list, but they're augmented by regionmates from Israel, Lebanon, and Greece, including Haggipavlu's Nemea, a Greek agiorgikito whose cherry spice is becoming a familiar taste around town. A smart smattering from around the world makes up the rest of the list; I was happy to see an upstate cabernet franc (Millbrook; $35) and others clearly chosen for their drinking merits rather than their glamour.
All desserts are $6. Baklava, of which one is fairly allowed to expect great things at an upscale Turkish restaurant, disappoints: four dense, slightly salty bricks with no luster. A poached quince, bright red and bright-flavored, is miles better. Kaymak, a thick Turkish clotted cream, perks up both the quince and an interesting pancake of shredded wheat, tastily sodden with sugar syrup and filled with oozy melted cheese. It is an unusual sight in a dessert, but one that I could get used to.
Pera (303 Madison Ave., between 41st and 42nd streets, 212-878-6301).